SHAWANGUNK – The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is investigating the Watchtower Farms property owned and operated by Jehovah's Witnesses on around Red Mills Road in the Town of Shawangunk, seeking evidence of contamination from chemical wastes.
Recently, the DEC announced that there are "three areas of concern" at the property. These were identified, during previous investigations conducted between 2006 and 2009, as areas including 1) a place between two large residential buildings where chemical wastes were found; 2) a building where wastes were repackaged; 3) a field behind the sawmill, to the north of the main printing plant.
The former Goebel property, first homesteaded in the 17th century, was purchased by the Watchtower, the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, in 1963, then greatly expanded in the 1970s. The organization's headquarters were then in Brooklyn, but in 2004, Watchtower shifted all its "printer" business to its upstate locations. To date, the facility claims to have printed 3 million Bibles, 18 million magazines, 27 million books, and 236 million tracts, in addition to works in Braille and the reproduction of works on video and DVD.
Jehovah's Witnesses are described as a "Restorationist" or "primitivist" variety of Christianity. They reject the Trinity concept and do not celebrate Christmas or Easter.
"In 2006 or 7, DEC asked us to look into those areas where the contamination has been found," said Troy Snyder, Facility Manager at the Red Mill Road Watchtower Printery, in reaction to news of the new DEC investigation. "We didn't begin printing here until the mid-70s. Before that everything was printed in Brooklyn. The chemical waste was put in decades ago, late sixties, early seventies. The chemicals point to the printing industry, and most likely it is from our facility."
It has been reported that the chemical waste now under investigation was in fifty-five gallon drums that were found during the digging of a foundation for a new residential building. Such waste can contain heavy metals, especially lead, as well as benzene and other chemicals that are known carcinogens.
A DEC spokesperson said, "The investigation began in 2006. We are pretty sure this is historical waste that came from Brooklyn, back before regulations were put in place. It is primarily related to wastes associated with printing operations, such as inks and solvents."
"The Watchtower organization applied to participate in the DEC's Brownfield Cleanup Program [BCP] after the 2009 Phase II Investigation was completed," the spokesperson continued. "The BCP investigation is expected to be wrapped up sometime in the spring of 2012."
Asked whether the contamination from this one set of fifty-five gallon drums is all there is, the DEC spokesperson noted, "We don't think they — that is Watchtower — know. They are doing ground penetrating radar, a complete survey of the property. At this point the investigation continues, with soil testing, looking for metals, volatiles and other chemical contamination."
"Watchtower has been very cooperative," they added. "We want to get the whole picture, so this will be a thorough analysis."
In a somewhat more reassuring remark, the DEC said, "DEC is still evaluating any risk to groundwater, aquifers and streams, but initial investigations have not shown any significant threat to groundwater or drinking water, or any impacts to nearby surface waters."
"Just to reassure the neighbors, we're an agricultural community, and we want to be able to use the land for agricultural use." added Snyder, speaking for Watchtower. "We are doing the clean-up with our own funds, and we are basically doing whatever the DEC thinks we should do. This is our home, our community, and the Watchtower is going to do all it can to ensure that we don't have any contamination on our property. We don't want to be under suspicion, so we want this to be a public review, and for all the municipalities to have a chance to review it, too. We think our reputation with our neighbors is a good one, and we want to keep it that way."